DAVID FARMER

Holding back the flood — of water and criticism

Posted Nov. 09, 2011, at 3:51 p.m.

Last Tuesday, Tony Fletcher was working.

The 66-year-old was alone inspecting a dam in Dover-Foxcroft. The job required him to lower himself into a 48-inch pipe with water about a quarter of the way up. A second pipe, just 36 inches across, was cluttered with debris and he couldn’t squeeze inside.

It’s just part of Fletcher’s job as the state’s primary dam inspector for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

At about the same time that Fletcher was doing dangerous and lonely work to make sure a dam was safe, a story appeared from the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. In a long article, more than 2,000 words, Fletcher’s professionalism and ethics were called into question.

While the writing insinuated many things, the “gotcha” revelation seems to be that Fletcher, on at least one occasion, drove his state-issued truck to Colby College where he works part time as a rugby coach.

I don’t know Fletcher personally. But I have met him.

When I worked in the governor’s office, I was the liaison for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Through many floods, nor’easters, blizzards, strange flus and other disasters — man-made and natural — I was part of the team staffing the Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates the response to emergencies.

The staff at MEMA and the emergency management teams at the county and municipal level are highly trained, professional and competent. They tell you to get the hell out before the water rises and they come and get you when you are too much of a fool to listen. They help to keep us safe and prepared.

In 2007, I was in the operations center during the massive Patriots’ Day storm that caused terrible damage throughout Maine. We got a call that a dam near the New Hampshire border was failing.

I specifically remember the relief in the operations center when Fletcher got to the dams and we could get real information about the situation.

Fletcher stayed on site for days managing the water flow between two dams that were at risk of failure. Working with local emergency management personnel, he helped keep a bad situation from turning deadly.

Maine has more than 750 dams that must be inspected, and until recently our state has had a single dam inspector, Fletcher.

He is called out at all hours of the night and day. He has a tremendous administrative burden and spends long hours and long nights driving to dams scattered across the state.

Back in the days before MEMA moved to its new offices, Fletcher kept a cot and sleeping bag in his office for the long nights when he was too beat to drive home.

And when budget cuts hit the agency and dollars were scarce to the point he didn’t feel comfortable staying in a hotel for work, he had to be ordered by supervisors to stop sleeping in a sleeping bag in the back of his state-issued truck when he was in remote areas inspecting dams.

Fletcher told me he has been with MEMA for about 13 years. Before joining state government and signing up for long hours, little thanks and the public beating he received last week, he had been a consultant helping to design and build dams.

“There are only two things in my life: my kids and family, and my job,” Fletcher told me last week. “I try to balance the time I have. I never cut corners when it comes to work or making sure dams are safe.”

MEMA pays him — as a highly trained engineer — about $57,000 a year to crawl into pipes and climb over old dams to make sure they are safe.

Maine’s dam inspection program is troubled, but it’s not because of Fletcher or the fact that he works part time so he can take care of his family and make sure his two daughters, 17 and 18, have a chance to go to college.

Maine’s dam inspection program is behind because we haven’t appropriately funded the program. The constant assault on government means that resources are short for just about everything government does.

Government is the enemy, until it isn’t.

And then, it’s usually somebody like Tony Fletcher, underpaid and undervalued, standing on top of a dam near the New Hampshire border making sure homes and lives don’t get washed away.

His job isn’t 8 to 4. And thank goodness for it. When the creek’s rising, I’m glad Fletcher is on the job. And when he’s not on the job, I hope his rugby team plays well.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/dfarmer14.

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